When I was assigned to cover a dance concert, I didn’t have a clue as to how to photograph movement. Nor did I know anything about the dance world. It took me a little while to get the hang of photographing people moving unpredictably in rapidly changing lighting conditions on the stage. By the time I moved back home to NYC in 1973, however, I had not only mastered the technique, but found myself very intrigued by the subject matter. I also felt a sense of relief that dance photographs, unlike the rest of my photojournalistic assignments, only had to be interesting visually. They didn’t have to express an editorial point of view.
I went to as many dress rehearsals of dance performances that I could to build up my technique and reputation. The modern and postmodern dance world was exploding in NY at the time and I was able to get regular work at The Village Voice, The New York Times, Dance Magazine and other periodicals. In this experimental environment I wasn’t limited to typically “peak” moments as I would have been in more traditional situations and was able to explore more quirky configurations and unusual moments.
By 1978 I had become increasingly dissatisfied with a documentary approach. I didn’t want to be limited to trying to snatch a moment from a distance at a dress rehearsal. I wanted the ability to shape and refine the moment as a photograph. I wanted more control of my subjects and their representation. I lost interest in working in theaters and would invite dancers to experiment with me wherever I could manage it. I bought electronic strobes and finally got my own studio in 1980.
I became less and less interested in interpreting choreography and more and more interested in using dancer's bodies as compositional elements to serve my own evolving artistic preoccupations. I didn’t want my photography to be merely a handmaiden of the dance, archiving someone else’s work of art. I wanted to impose the medium of photography on my subject matter, to produce images of dancers that captured the feeling and excitement of the movement, even though that moment may not exist on the stage.
On assignment for the Village Voice in 1982, I met David Parsons and Daniel Ezralow, two dancers who at the time were with the Paul Taylor Dance Co. I was attracted to their combination of athleticism and lyricism. Dan and Dave were just at the point in their careers where they were beginning to discover how their bodies moved when not performing Paul Taylor’s choreography. Putting aside my 35 mm camera I borrowed a Hasselblad to experiment with .
Improvising in a kamikaze spirit, Dan and Dave hurtled through space in impossible positions . My camera’s square format and telephoto lens cropped their bodies radically , and the results were startling.
Quite by accident I discovered the aesthetic that would incorporate the dialogue between my medium and my subject matter that I was looking for.
The dynamic relationship between the picture’s frame and the subject excited me the most. Taken as a literal boundary for the dancers, the negative’s black border intensifies the explosive energy of the movement within. Cropping into the dancer’s bodies, the frame creates unexpected entrances and exits. The viewer begins to consider “off screen” space in relation to depicted space. The square format also allows us to reconceive our perception of gravity, with all four sides of the square exerting an equal gravitational pull on the subjects within.
Inadvertent cropping of the dancer’s movement and the lens’ radical compression of space led to a new pictorial syntax, one that accepted fragments of bodies as essential features of compositional structure. Furthermore, I began to discover transitional moments that were often beneath the threshold of perception.
I started to ask the dancers to improvise, and was drawn to those high-risk, non repeatable moments that could never been seen on any scene, or even repeated in the studio. Although the images are plucked out of a kinetic flow, the single instant of the photograph questions that continuum. Showing 1/500th of a second , the camera can also reveal what the eye cannot register. The results of my early experiments appeared surreal, as though the dancers were glued together and frozen in impossible configurations.
This made simple questions provoke mystifying answers. “How did the dancers get in that position?” Where are they coming from and how will they land?” The more impossible the picture looked, the more I considered it a success.
The fruits of my collaboration with Daniel Ezralow, Dave Parsons and Ashley Roland, as well as other dancers and companies was “Breaking Bounds”, my first monograph published by Thames and Hudson and Chronicle Books in 1992. In my latest book, Airborne, I explore the metaphoric potential of bodies in flight. In many pictures I add elements and props to add psychological drama and transform the identity of the dancer. I am intrigued by the mythology of metamorphosis: from human to animal, or animal to plant, from spirit into matter and matter giving way to spirit.